Thursday, 28 February 2013

The 31 Women Number Four, Julia Thecla, artist, designer, curator,– today is her birthday

February28,1896 - June 29, 1973  American painter, theatre & ballet designer, performance artist, curator.


 Julia Connell Thecla was born in Delavan, Illinois and moved to Chicago in around 1920. She was a working artist from around 1920 to 1966, but she was not recognised outside Chicago and she was almost forgotten even before her death. Little is known about her family, she largely severed ties with them.

Julia attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, while supporting herself as a commercial artist, copyist and art restorer. These and other subsidiary activities sustained her over many years, she never earned much from her paintings. Even after her arrival in Chicago it was eleven years before she could exhibit. Her first exhibition was the Art Institute’s International Watercolour Exhibition in 1931, when Thecla was already 35. She contributed work to the Art Institute’s various annual shows until  her death.

Though she is sometimes described as a surrealist, Julia Thecla’s enigmatic and deeply personal pictures are out on the periphery of the surrealist movement. Much of her work is symbolist or just quirkily representational, rather than really surrealist. She was deeply involved in the artistic community and aware of surrealism and its connotations but, like many women artists, she took only what she liked out of it. Her first truly Surrealist pictures began to emerge in the late 1930’s with works such as Dreamer and Nudes 1937 which depicting a costumed woman, her eyes closed, holding four ropes which are stretched taut and disappear into the sea. Attached to the other ends of the ropes are a line of nudes.

Like some of the other women associated with surrealism, notably Leonor Fini and Frida Kahlo, Julia often included her own face in her paintings, though these are not as obviously self-portraits as in, for example, the entirely self-aware work of Frida Kahlo. The meaning of Julia Thecla’s paintings of dreamy, childlike women remains obscure, like the even more enigmatic work of Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Also like them she refused to explain her enigmas, allowing the pictures to speak for themselves.

Julia Thecla’s favourite medium was gouache, she used the water based paint thick and opaque, often scratching through layers of paint to the paper below, so outlining her subjects in white. She seldom painted on canvas, reserving this for rare, large oil paintings, most of her works are small or very small and have been described as jewel like, for their size and intensity of colour. In the surrealist manner, Julia experimented with mixed media and random collage and used wax and soot from candle flames in her painting, a technique named ‘fumage’ by the surrealists. Inspired by shapes thus formed, she made images with her paper flat on the table or even floor, she never worked at an easel.

From the late 1930’s Julia was involved with theatre and especially with ballet. She designed costumes and sets for a number of productions, one required her to design circus freak costumes for the dancers including one with three heads and another for a one-legged dancer. She curated two large exhibitions of Ballet Art in the early 1950’s and she painted pictures on a ballet theme. One of her few well known images, Bunny Backstage, painted in 1939 shows her friend, ballerina Mary Guggenheim, sitting on a trunk to take off her dancing shoes, with a large black rabbit for an audience. Some of her other ballet paintings are more fantastical, with tutu clad dancers atop mountains or in the clouds and in a series of late paintings she became excited by the outward bound world of space exploration.

Julia Thecla has been described as a performance artist. She dressed eccentrically, adopting a childlike persona dressed in Victoriana and this was as much a part of her artistic expression as her painting. She walked down the street where she lived in full costume with her pet chicken on a leash. This extraordinary act in the conservative Chicago suburbs led to friends advising her to tone it down, for fear she could be treated as insane. Whilst her costuming may have been a disguise, to hide her shyness, it was also a performance. She gives the impression of pursuing the femme-enfant ideal which was encouraged by the Surrealists in their younger female followers, although she was not personally engaged with them she was well read and would have been aware of the phenomenon.

Quite apart from her disguises, Julia was also secretive in her personal life. She had some friends but few were close. She lived simply, alone and was nervous outside familiar milieu. Her solitary state was assuaged by her many pets, especially rabbits, cats, chickens and pigeons. Apart from artist Gertrude Abercrombie, her greatest friend was painter David Porter, who she first met in the early 1930’s. He helped her to exhibit her work outside Chicago in Washington and New York. She also exhibited at the Chicago Women Artist’s Salon and with the WPA.

She became more secretive as she grew older, living alone in her studio until she began to lose her sight. Julia Thecla stopped painting in the mid 1960’s and died in obscurity in a Catholic nursing home in 1973. Friends who attended her funeral might have been surprised to discover that she was born in 1896. She had routinely shaved ten years or more from her age and her performance as an eternal little girl had fooled more than a few during her 77 year life.

Julia Thecla’s art has had two retrospectives since her death, but her work continues to be overlooked beyond the boundaries of her home state, although pictures are also owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington DC and MoMA, New York.

Her deliberate rejection of the supposedly ‘normal’ womanly attachment to husband, lover or family could be construed as a striving for autonomy as an artist, though lack of attachment to an important (male) artist may have led to Thecla becoming even more obscure in the annals of art history than some of her contemporaries amongst women artists. Frida Kahlo for example, first became known through her marriage to Diego Rivera and both Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning undoubtedly gained from their relationships with Max Ernst. Rivera and Ernst both encouraged the artistic ambitions of their women partners unlike Surrealist godfather Andre Breton, who denigrated his wife Jacqueline Lamba’s creativity for 10 years, until she divorced him.

Julia Connell Thecla had neither a Rivera to encourage her nor a Breton to deride, but maybe this lack of any association with known male artists has helped towards her obscurity. Sometimes women artists simply can’t win.

Sources include:
Joanna Gardner - Huggett,  Julia Thecla:Undiscovered Worlds, 2006, De Paul University Art Museum, Chicago (exhibition catalogue with introduction by Louise Lincoln)

Comments and further information about Julia Thecla are very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones remain on this blog

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